Leadership is Mike Krzyzewski’s favorite topic to study. That can be traced back to his time as a student at West Point, where he played basketball under Bob Knight and later served as a head coach. You know the rest of the story.
Last weekend, Krzyzewski had a chance to take his current Duke team back to his old stomping grounds as part of their five-day fall break trip, which they named Duke Elevate. Thanks to a change in the NCAA’s rules and the earlier start of practice, the Blue Devils, like most other Duke students, had the opportunity to leave campus and take a trip.
“It was just an eye-opening experience, just to be around New York,” Rodney Hood said. “We got to see where Coach went to school, why he acts the way he acts, why he teaches like he teaches. It was a great eye-opening experience. It helped us as a team on and off the court.”
On their trip, the Blue Devils had dinners with prominent Duke alumni, basketball players and businessmen (Hood said he had a great talk with Kyle Singler), and trips to places like Harlem’s Apollo Theater and Rucker park, the World Trade Center and September 11th memorial, Broadway (to see Motown) and West Point. While at West Point, the team toured the campus, watched about 1,000 cadets march before the football game and underwent the same gun simulation drills the cadets perform before they take the battlefield.
“The thing with that was, no matter if you’re on the battlefield or on the court, you’ve got to communicate, come up with a strategy and execute the strategy,” Thornton said. “Sometimes the strategy that you thought was going to work, you’re in the battle, it doesn’t work, talking how to get through it and make adjustments. The coaches did a good job of setting up the activities and different events to help us see that no matter what you’re doing, if you want to work as a unit, first of all, you have to be prepared, and secondly you’ve got to communicate and have the man to the left of you and right of you have your back.
“We watched Motown, those guys are in sync dancing, that was great, that was exciting,” Thornton continued, explaining the lessons of the trip. “Some guys were in 30 different scenes playing different characters. Coach was like, ‘how do those guys stay focused on what they’re supposed to do in that moment, how do they not mess up and think about something else?’ It was just showing us that what we do is easy. What we do is a lot more simplified. It was a great trip.”
For Hood, the highlight of the trip was visiting the 9/11 memorial, where the Blue Devils paid their respects to the six Duke alumni that died in the World Trade Center attacks. For Thornton, it was talking to some of the non-basketball players who had achieved success in business.
“You kind of get focused on what we’re doing., but this trip just made us understand there’s more than basketball, it’s about relationships, it’s about integrity, being an honest person, being a good person and giving back,” Thornton said. “It was great for us to experience that because when you see people in other walks of life and how they’re living.”
Krzyzewski has taken similar trips with USA Basketball, trips that focus on more than just improving the group on the court.
“You can see a lot of things, but when I coach our U.S. team, I try to take them to different places where they can feel, not just hear and see,” Krzyzewski said. “And if you feel something, you can end up owning it. And if you own it, it becomes yours. On this trip, you get to see and feel excellence. High standards, commitment, just the pride and tradition of all these different entities and how people overcome adversity and how people do it every day. It’s all alive, and it’s real. In a classroom, they can hear words. On this trip, they could feel words. It was a remarkable trip for us.”